The Week America Lost New Orleans: A Presidential Retrospective (#3)
Katrina Disaster -- Day 3
Wednesday, August 31, 2005
As the Gulf Coast disaster spins out of control, most of us see this picture (taken by Mannie Garcia of Reuters) and conclude that the President is out of touch.
However, in light of the incompetence that follows; the time lines that will document that incompetence; and, especially, the accounts that will emerge of President Bush's actions, access and state of mind over these days, it will become evident that this picture says more (and that other versions will say still more).
For example, Garcia's shot reveals Bush in his "Commander In Chief" jacket with the large presidential logo on one side and his name and title stitched on the other. Realizing he had better start looking on top of things -- and with the New Orleans fly-by already arranged -- isn't his clothing the one one prop he has to work with? As a man of gesture -- in lieu of the real thing -- the jacket is meant to remind that he's somehow in charge. (Unfortunately, the picture turns out to be so damning, nobody notices the jacket -- which suggests that the only person assuaged by the attire is probably Bush himself.)
The "out takes" (by which I mean, the wire photos that didn't circulate widely because they weren't as "fit" as Mannie's) suggest even more, however. Bush's expression in this home run photo by AP's Susan Walsh might turn out to be one of the more revealing portraits of the Bush presidency. Sadly, it is reminiscent of the "My Pet Goat" photo taken on the morning of 9/11. In this case, however, the "Oh my God" is replaced with a look of "What the hell do you expect me to do about it?" Clearly, its a rare glimpse of Bush without the mask, or the script, or the teleprompter, or the Rove or Cheney, or the transmitter -- and he knows it.
Of the many "out take" images, this one is also interesting -- if not somewhat more associative. (I guess it would be too easy to say it's literally a guy in the dark.)
What is unique about this shot is that it's the only one that manages to depict Bush and New Orleans at the same time. Because we can see that he sees it, this photo (more than the others) serves as a visual indictment of Bush's absence from a situation he is clearly responsible for.
Just as powerfully, however, what the image also represents is the extent to which Bush remains encapsulated in his own confined world. The image reinforces the understanding that Bush remains walled off at all times, with only the most distant and fragmentary perception of what is going on outside.
Finally, I cannot emphasized enough how absolutely staged these images are.
Of course, that might seem obvious upon making the statement -- especially if you share my politics. Because of the assuming nature of a photo, however (with its suggestion of reality and its emotional draw), it is always going to pull for acceptance of the spin.
On the other hand, it is much harder to take the President's posturing at face value when you can see evidence of the stage and the actor, one pose after another. At that point, you can see that this is simply a photo shoot, and the President, rather than being somebody at this critical moment, is trying to look like someone instead.
(By the way, my last "contact strip" below shows Bush's actual view of the Superdome -- three and a half days before it will ultimately be evacuated.)
(The other entries in this series are available here.)
(image 1: REUTERS/Mannie Garcia. Air Force One of New Orleans. August 31, 2005. At YahooNews. image 2: AP/Susan Walsh. Air Force One of New Orleans. August 31, 2005. At YahooNews. image 3: AP/Susan Walsh. Air Force One of New Orleans. August 31, 2005. At YahooNews. filmstrip 1-5 (all August 31, 2005. All from YahooNews): 1. (Mannie Garcia/Reuters) 2. (AFP/File/Jim Watson) 3. (Mannie Garcia/Reuters) 4. (AFP/Jim Watson) 5. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh/ Canadian Press) 6. (AFP/Jim Watson) 7. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) 8. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) 9. REUTERS/Mannie Garcia 10. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) 11. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) 12. & 14. The Superdome (AFP/Jim Watson)13. The Superdome. (Mannie Garcia/Reuters).)